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Gonzaga Basketball

Saint Mary’s picked ahead of Gonzaga in preseason WCC poll; Zag trio makes preseason all-league team

Gonzaga Bulldogs forward Anton Watson (22) guards St. Mary’s Gaels guard Aidan Mahaney (20) at the rim as Zag fans react during the second half of a college basketball game on Saturday, Feb. 25, 2023, at McCarthey Athletic Center in Spokane, Wash. Gonzaga won the game 77-68.  (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

LAS VEGAS – If Gonzaga was fueled by the No. 2 seed at last year’s West Coast Conference Tournament, the Bulldogs should have no trouble summoning motivation when the 2023-24 season opens less than a month from now.

For the first time in six years, WCC coaches chose someone other than Gonzaga to win the conference title, handing Saint Mary’s that honor when the preseason poll and preseason all-conference teams were released Thursday morning.

With BYU’s departure from the conference, only nine coaches voted on the preseason poll this season. Saint Mary’s won the preseason vote by a tight margin, with five coaches selecting the Gaels and four selecting the Zags.

All nine votes went to those two. Coaches are unable to vote for their team, meaning GU’s Mark Few gave his vote to the Gaels and Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett picked the Zags.

Saint Mary’s was last picked to win the regular-season championship in 2017-18. The Bulldogs still won both WCC crowns that year, going 17-1 in the regular season before beating BYU in the WCC Tournament championship game.

Few and Gonzaga’s player contingent at WCC Media Day – senior forward Anton Watson and transfer point guard Ryan Nembhard – downplayed using the preseason poll as a motivational tool when asked about it at Resorts World .

“I don’t really follow that stuff, I really don’t,” Few said. “Great. Good. Preseason anythings are the biggest waste of time to me.”

“I don’t even know, I don’t really pay attention to the polls,” Watson said. “I guess it is what it is. I think we just have to focus on ourselves still. It’s the same thing, I think.”

San Francisco was selected to finish third by the coaches, followed by Loyola Marymount, Santa Clara, Portland, Pepperdine, Pacific and San Diego.

Bennett wasn’t surprised to see his team top Gonzaga in Thursday’s coaches poll after returning three starters from a group that lost to UConn in the second round of last year’s NCAA Tournament.

“I wasn’t surprised, we return three guys who were all-league,” Bennett said. “A lot of guys left the league. It doesn’t mean other teams won’t be good, but all this is based on how much you return and not necessarily transfers. … I actually thought that’s kind of how it was going to go.”

Other WCC coaches didn’t place much stock in the pecking order of Thursday’s preseason poll, particularly how things shook out at the top.

“I think it’s happened only one other time? And (Gonzaga) still won the league,” San Francisco coach Chris Gerlufsen said. “I think Gonzaga is what it is. They don’t change year in, year out. The players and the names change, but the way they go about their business, the way they’re coached, their level of play really doesn’t change much.”

Predictably, the teams that received all nine votes to win a WCC regular-season title also combined for a majority of the preseason All-WCC selections.

Fifth-year Gonzaga player Watson, a Gonzaga Prep graduate, was named to the 10-player All-WCC preseason team, along with teammates Ryan Nembhard and Graham Ike, who transferred from Creighton and Wyoming, respectively.

The Saint Mary’s trio of Aidan Mahaney, Alex Ducas and Mitchell Saxen were named to the preseason all-conference team along with Pepperdine’s Houston Mallette and Jevon Porter, Loyola Marymount’s Keli Leaupepe and Portland’s Tyler Robertson.

After starting all 37 games for Gonzaga, which reached the Elite Eight last season, Watson entered his name in the NBA draft but chose to return to school for his fifth college season.

Watson earned All-WCC honorable mention last season after finishing second in the WCC while shooting 60.8% from the field.

Watson’s percentage during conference play (64.8) led all WCC players. He averaged a career-best 11.1 points per game during the 2022-23 season and finished with 66 steals, the fourth most in a single season in program history.

Nembhard, the younger brother of former GU point guard Andrew Nembhard, made 64 starts for Creighton the past two seasons, averaging 12.1 points, 4.0 rebounds and 4.8 assists in 2022-23 and 11.3 points and 4.4 assists as a freshman.

Nembhard helped Creighton advance to the Elite Eight last season, scoring a career-high 30 points with four 3-pointers during a second-round tournament game against Baylor.

A former preseason Mountain West Player of the Year, Ike is recovering from a foot injury that sidelined him for the Cowboys’ 2022-23 season. The Wyoming transfer has participated in preseason practices with Gonzaga this fall but sat out during the team’s Kraziness in the Kennel scrimmage last Saturday for precautionary reasons.

Few reiterated on Thursday that the Zags are “pacing” Ike’s recovery with the team still one month from its Nov. 10 season opener against Yale at McCarthey Athletic Center.

“We’re trying to be mindful and kind of pace sometimes,” Few said. “… He had a great summer. We’re trying to pace as we kind of get into this. Yeah, we fully expect him to be ready to roll.”

Ike averaged 19.5 points and 9.6 rebounds two seasons ago at Wyoming, helping the Cowboys finish 25-9 and make the NCAA Tournament.

A 6-foot-9, 255-pound forward, he totaled 17 points and nine rebounds in Wyoming’s loss to Indiana in a First Four game two years ago.